Today’s writer used a question in Now Is The Time: A Study Guide for ELCA Declaration to People of African Descent as the starting point for her blog. In Session 1 of the guide, a small group discussion question is posed: What is your earliest memory of noticing racial difference? What messages were associated with racial difference?
The Declaration of the ELCA to People of African Descent is an acknowledgment of the church’s complicity in slavery and the perpetuation of systemic racism. Now Is The Time: A Study Guide for ELCA Declaration to People of African Descent focuses on deepening understanding of that history and engaging white people in conversation on the meaning and impact of slavery and systemic racism. Participant materials are available in addition to the study guide.
by Jody Smiley
I grew up in a small town in South Carolina in what I would call a lower-middle-class family. Both my parents worked, and we had an African American young woman, Lilly, that cared for me and my three siblings. My older brother and sister attended school and my younger brother and I were at home with Lilly all day. She had a daughter, Gayle, that was my age and would come with her each day. We thought it was just to play with us. Gayle and I became playmates and great friends right away.
When it was time for me to start school like every other little girl, I was excited and ready to make new friends. After my first day, I came home very disappointed. I had met new people, but I didn’t see Gayle. I asked my parents why she wasn’t in my class or even at my school. How do you explain the “separate but equal” policy to a 6-year-old? My parents kept it simple, “Gayle is going to her own school just like you are.” I am sure I just accepted that answer and went on my way. Without knowing it, this was my introduction to racial differences.
As a white girl in South Carolina, I just accepted the idea that I attended school with just people that looked like me. I never gave it another thought. In 1970 the high school I attended became fully integrated. I was a junior and I am sorry to say a lot of my friends chose to leave the public high school and attend a private school. I made new friends that didn’t look like me and it made me a better person. As teenagers, we didn’t dwell a lot on social issues but there were times that my African American friends shared their stories. I remember one in particular.
In the sophomore class, the student that finished the year with the highest grades was an African American young man. I said how impressed I was and he shared this story. When he was registering at the new integrated high school, he overheard some white teachers questioning how smart the “new black” students would be. They said there is no way they are going to make the grade. He said at that time he vowed to study and show them just how wrong they were, and he did.
Now as I look back at that time as my adult self, how sad it was to fool ourselves that the system was truly “separate but equal”. We chose and continue to choose not to see what is in front of us, how unfair the system was and continues to be.
Jody Smiley is a retired environmental analytical chemist from Blacksburg, Va. She served on the churchwide executive board of Women of the ELCA from 2011-2017 and was the vice president from 2014-2017. She also has served as the president of the Virginia Synodical Women’s Organization.